Remembering Phil Harris

Phil Harris passed away on July 27th, 2010.

Phil's burial

Below are several tributes from members of the folk dance community (Make sure to scroll down).
Kaye Roth, July 28, 2010

Phil Harris was a member of our folk dance family. He appeared on a Saturday night many, many years ago, a rather unusual alienated fellow who didn't care much about his personal appearance, or socializing and didn't dance too well. But he was smart and persistent and kept coming back, and to our credit we never turned him away as an unacceptable liability.

Through the years he learned a lot from us and I hope we learned a lot from him. Many of us accepted Phil on his own terms and gave him some of the love that at first was hard for him to receive. Ingrid was one of those people who saw the potential in Phil. In my opinion Phil became more reasonable and socially acceptable through the years, becoming a decent partner and sometimes even courtly and helpful in his own way. He could be obnoxious, but he could also be caring. He tried lots of different kinds of dancing, in a way it became his life. He also hung out at libraries and read a lot, and liked to challenge himself with solitary card games.

Once you got to know him you could see that Phil had a good mind and was pretty resourceful at living on his own terms. Phil was not a quitter and delighted in figuring out schemes to survive. In recent years he seemed to develop an ability to understand others that hadn't been there when I first met him. How do you define a friend? If it's someone you empathize with, feel affection for and would like to see continue to grow, Phil was my friend. I know he was always glad to see me, gave me love and acceptance and showed concern when I was hurting. As Phil's strength declined he went to great lengths to get to dancing, just to be with us.

I am sorry that Phil had to die so alienated, lonely and afraid, but his fiercely independent spirit somehow wouldn't have it any other way. I am just sorry that we couldn't collectively crack his armor a little more thoroughly so that he could have known that there was a better way to live. Phil in some ways was a test of the strength of our community. In many ways we did carry him along. Perhaps there are others in our midst who have a little "Phil" in them that could use our fellowship. Maybe that is the best way we can honor the simple life of this man who hung out with us for so long. Strangely, I shall miss him.

Carol Russell, August 3rd, 2010

Hi Kaye,

I would like to add something. I danced with Phil, sometimes more often than I planned, because one of his strengths was persistence. His dancing did improve with time, as you said, and his determination to learn to dance was admirable. Partners like Ingrid aided him in his skills, allowing him to sometimes have an almost courtly manner.

I think he meant well, just didn't have a lot of skills in interacting with others. I've met other folks with the same lacking. Even so, sometimes I saw him coming and weaseled out the back door, hoping for other partners.

He lived near me, in the UT area, and for a time asked for rides home after dancing, then asked for rides to parties and then home, and there were times when I refused because I didn't want the complication, and I was afraid it would become a regular occurrence. But part of his strength was his determination, and he kept on asking. An example of his resolve and determination-I saw him out at the intersection of MoPac and Anderson Lane once, and when I asked him about it, he said he had gone to some dance event-mostly walked, I think.

Once there was a dance event with live music, and the music being played was my favorite kind, and the partners I would have liked to dance with seemed to be engaged with each dance, so I wound up dancing all the later numbers of the evening with Phil. The music was so lovely, and I didn't plan on being his partner for so long, but I was glad to dance. And he asked me, when others did not.

I am counting on there being dancing in Heaven, and I trust Phil will be there, with the limitations that kept him apart, whether physical, mental or social, all healed. And he will be welcomed warmly to the dance.

As may we all.

Ingrid Huskey, August 3rd, 2010

I met Phil in Ron Houston's UT folk-dance class. I did not learn until many years later that Phil always made a bee line for the new girl in the class. I made it clear to him that I was married and not interested in any hanky-panky. That was fine with him. It was Phil who introduced me to Saturday-night dancing and country western dancing. I was in my fifties when I started and so clumsy that I wanted to quit several times. It was Phil who encouraged me to keep on dancing, and eventually I loved folk dancing. I was glad to have a partner because other men hardly ever asked me for a dance (a problem I still have). My attempts to change him were mostly failures. He refused to go to a dentist and his table manners did not improve. My husband and I had him over for dinner but had to quit that because he devoured all the food before the other guests had a chance to have seconds. Although his love for dancing was admirable, his dancing was not. I realized that I had to dance with other men in order to improve my dancing but I had to ask men to dance with me. He loved to save money and getting free meals and rides and never reciprocated. In spite of all that I regarded him as an unusual friend and I will always be grateful that he gave me so much encouragement.

I will pay my last respects from a distance.

Lissa Bengston, August 4th, 2010

When I first started folk dancing in the 70's, AIFD was a large and somewhat scary group of very good dancers, and almost all of them were older than me. It was hard to find a partner for the couple dances, and quite often Phil Harris would ask me to dance when none of the other guys would.

He would sweat profusely and sometimes in a fast dance the droplets would fly off of him in his enthusiasm. He was a plain man with a bad complexion, but his eyes were soft and sincere and his love of dancing was obvious. I learned the patterns of many of the couple dances thanks to Phil, and eventually I got to be a better dancer and some of the excellent good-looking men would ask me to dance. But when Phil asked me to dance I tried to always say yes, because I owed him.

A couple of years ago I danced with him at a Wednesday night contra, and I thanked him for dancing with me all those years ago and helping me learn. I don't think he had a response, or at least I don't remember it, but I'm very glad I said something. There are lots of terrific dance partners that I'll never forget--and I'll certainly never forget, and always appreciate, Sweaty Phil.

Bill Ogilvie, August 5th, 2010

At Phil's burial I read out loud a letter that Phil had written to his father but had never sent (see pdf). Phil's neighbor, Billie, and I found the letter when, at the request of Phil's sister (who lives in San Diego), we entered Phil's house to gather Phil's personal records. The letter seemed to capture an essense of Phil that helped us appreciate this man. Phil was by no means poor. He was just obsessed with not spending money. In collecting documents for his sister, Billie and I found hand written financial notes going back 40 years. Some of these were account ledgers, some were stock quotes and related information, and some were expenditures (often for very small amounts). Some were in notebooks, and some were on scraps of paper piled around his house. All the notes were meticuously written, often with lettering so small and so compressed that they were barely legible.

Phil's obsession with financial notes and his stinginess seemed to indicate that he suffered from Asperger syndrome. Phil's letter to his father gives the impression that, in Phil's mind, getting things for free was a way to earn respect. At the same time the letter seems to reflect Phil's sincere struggle to reach beyond this obsession in an attempt to establish a personal relationship that was otherwise beyond his capabilities.

Sadly, what appeared to be Phil's most prized possesion was a single scrap book on his coffee table with pictures from his childhood, and pictures, articles, and memorabilia relating to folk dancing and contra dancing dating back to the 1970s. The scrap book showed just how much Phil really cherished dancing and the dance community.